"If you dig a hole for someone else, you'll fall into it" ~ Hungarian proverb
The flurry of excitement when a few more women started to wear the burka reminds me of the furore when men started to grow their hair long. There is an obvious difference this time because the political climate is more frightening, but at root the issue is the same – an attempt to force individuals to conform to an unimportant convention. What is more interesting is what lies beneath.
Rift opening up between peoples
Men with long hair represented a power struggle between generations. The burka is a manifestation of a rift opening up between peoples. And as with long hair, the reaction from the media, political leaders and ordinary people is disproportionate.
Jack Straw complained about the burka, saying 'I felt uneasy talking to someone I couldn't see'. When I first heard this comment, I was inclined to sympathize. Then I thought harder. He is, presumably, perfectly happy to talk to people on the phone. And as for the statement by the Dutch cabinet that 'burkas disturb public order, citizens and safety' is simply outrageous. They are talking about mere clothing.
I have a confession to make. When I see men wearing Hassidic outfits, I am taken aback by their outlandishness. I feel the same when I see someone with an unfortunate facial disfigurement. No doubt the feeling springs from the same emotional well, but it is a weakness in me that I try to overcome. Above all, I try to avoid my internal reaction rebounding onto the person who is going about his or her business. It is my problem, not theirs.
But this is a complex controversy and it provides a rich seam of insight which can be mined to illustrate several aspects of human interaction.
First of all fashion. The upsurge of hijab wearing by women in the West is quite new. (The hijab is the generic term for the various different types of head covering worn by women in various Muslim countries. The Niqab and Burka are versions which respectively cover up most or all of the face). A few, mainly-newly arrived, immigrants, continued to dress as they had before they came to the west. By the second generation, most were happily moving towards greater integration in both dress and habits.
The neo-hijab fashion is a reaction to the upsurge in hostile feeling that followed 9-11 and 7-7 and, I would guess in the Netherlands, to the murder of Theo van Gogh. It suddenly became important for young women to wear a badge that identified them with their community. But it was also a fashion statement not so far removed from the recent enthusiasm for body piercing and tattoos. Without the drama created by the media and by politicians, it may well have subsided with little comment.
Bricks through windows
The visceral reaction against it illustrates how a population responds when it feel threatened. Those of us unable to control our feelings throw bricks through windows, push bags of faeces through letterboxes, and spit at people in the street. The less physically courageous write letters to the papers, express outrage at the way our culture is at risk from a flood of foreigners, and demand that something be done to stop this overwhelming tide.
And those of us unable to face our feelings, who want to maintain a facade of liberality, focus our fears on the burka. You might say that this is a much milder reaction. But it fuels the fires of conflict as much as all the others. Politicians who found excuses for complaining about the burka should know better. It is part of their job to encourage better feelings in the community, not to validate a primeval hostility to the outsider.
Let us now move elsewhere, to countries like Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq where women are forced to cover up. The Taliban beat and whipped women in the street for failing to follow their dress code. Iranian police are stopping women in the street, warning them not to show their hair, and arresting them or impounding their cars if they attempt to argue. Even in Iraq where the "liberating" forces have brought in female soldiers to try to keep the peace, government officials and police refuse to speak to women unless they wear their veils. It is now impossible for them to move around Bagdad with any of their hair showing. Liberty disappears quickly once it becomes acceptable to enforce fashion.
If it is acceptable to impose convention, people feel justified in their prejudices. Repression becomes part of the received culture of society. Racial prejudice was acceptable in the American South until it was undermined by civil rights protests in the 1960s; anti-Catholicism was acceptable in Northern Ireland until a thirty year civil war broke out; anti-Semitism was acceptable in most of Europe until the Nazi's took it to their bosom and unleashed the horrors of the holocaust.
Women cover their chests
Finally, let us examine the idea that women should cover their hair at all. The traditional explanation is modesty. But this requirement for modesty is all about women being constrained to avoid inflaming the passions of men and this notion is openly acknowledged in Afghanistan. It is an example of the imposition of a restriction on one group of people (women) by another (men) in order to deal with a problem that is entirely their own.
But let us not be too complacent. It is universally accepted that women in the West should cover their chests when going about their daily business. We must ask ourselves if that convention is very different from the requirement to cover up hair. Don't scoff. Bear in mind Cole Porter's resonant words:
In olden days a glimpse of stocking
Was looked on as something shocking
Now heaven knows
And it is a much better world because of it.